Curator JoJo Bell felt drawn to the suburbs and rural areas of Minnesota not because of two-car garages, single-family homes, and wide-open fields. As founder of the African American Interpretive Center of Minnesota, Bell wanted to explore the experience of being Black outside of the Twin Cities, and tell those underrepresented stories.
Bell, who grew up in Hopkins, wondered how Black people who grew up in majority white suburbs moved between those two worlds.
"I wanted to know what other experiences are out there," she said. "I knew those were different culturally."
Bell's curiosity culminated in an oral history project that also inspired the exhibition, "Outer Experiences: Black Life in Rural and Suburban Minnesota," opening this Thursday in the window galleries and skyways of the Minnesota Museum of American Art in St. Paul.
The exhibition features over 25 photographs by Chris McDuffie, who drove around rural and suburban Minnesota snapping portraits of Black people and the landscape.
Portraits of six individuals from Alexandria, Red Wing, Maplewood, Maple Grove, Woodbury and Worthington will be visible in the window galleries on Robert Street, as vinyl on the walls of 4th Street, and in the skyway above the museum.
The oral history project, which includes 21 interviews compiled by Bell and fellow board member Jeremiah Ellis, will be available via the aaicmn.org website the same day as the opening. A five-minute clip from the oral history project will also be available in the skyway portion of the show.
Bell's curatorial investigations for this show led her to ponder W.E.B. Du Bois' code about two-ness, known as double-consciousness, a psychological term coined during the post-reconstructionist movement. It refers to how many people of color feel as if their identity is divided into multiple parts. They have to shift between how they view themselves and how they might be perceived by white people. Du Bois' explanation of this specific Black experience opens space for challenging injustices and understanding institutionalized racism.
"Then there's a third layer of how other Black people see them," said Bell. "If they don't speak a certain way or like certain things, they can be othered that way. Sometimes you get double-othered, sometimes you don't."
Each of the people photographed is also included in the oral history project. A few quotes from the people interviewed will be on labels next to the photos, giving viewers a taste of the oral history project. Several of the Black women interviewed grew up in the suburbs and frequently dealt with racial microaggressions about their hair.
"It's something that feels complicated for Black women especially as they are growing up, especially because white people don't have that kind of hair, so they ask questions," she said. "It's another way to other people."
Themes like resilience and self-discovery also came up. Bell noted how Black people in the 'burbs had to search for information on their culture because it wasn't represented in their schools.
One of the people interviewed, Niki Botzet of Alexandria, noticed that while she had friends who were white and supported her as a Black person, they did not support the Black community as a whole.
Don Colbert of Maplewood posed in front a house in a neighborhood where most of the homes were owned by Black people. Temeka Wirkkala of Red Wing wore a white-and-brown-striped sweater that blended with her idyllic rural background. A sense of serenity surrounded these suburban moments.
The pandemic significantly altered the project, making it impossible to go into people's homes and take photos of a childhood bedroom or another intimate space. To stay COVID-safe, all photos were shot outside in locations that people felt connected to.
For Bell, part of her inspiration for the show was to let people know that Black people did grow up in Minnesota, and that they are Minnesotan.
"Sometimes when I travel or even when I am just here in Minnesota some people say, 'Where are you from?'… and it's kind of assumed that if you are Black or even just a person of color, that you've got to be from somewhere else, that you weren't born here and certainly didn't grow up here," she said. "For me that was one of the inspirations of, how do we get people to see that they spent their formative years here. How do we chip away at that?"